Turning a city into a lab

The role of observation in tackling urban challenges
Turning a city into a lab
UKCRIC Management Board Member, Professor of Civil Engineering (Newcastle University)

If a scientist or engineer wishes to test an idea, then experimentation is a tried and tested methodology. Classical scholars such as Archimedes, tested his ideas of buoyancy in the bath; today’s international teams of scientists are exploring the very nature of matter and the Universe in the Hadron Collider. For them all physical experiments are the cornerstone of their research.

The general approach is that a hypothesis is put forward, an experiment is designed in order to test this hypothesis, it is conducted, things are measured and the resulting data analysed. The results are then used to evaluate whether the hypothesis is true or false. Experiments are usually conducted within a laboratory so that the experimental conditions can be rigorously controlled so that cause and effect cannot be disputed as resulting from some unaccounted for effect. 

Why might we like to conduct experiments in a city?

As noted by Jane Jacobs in her seminal work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, “Cities are enormous laboratories of trial and error, failure and success…” If a scientist or engineer wishes to investigate an idea, then experimentation is a tried and tested methodology. And in fact, experiments are going on in cities all the time, although we are not conscious of their existence and scientists are not studying their design or results. These experiments could be physical interventions such as temporary traffic control schemes, the implementation of a policy change such as waste collection strategy, or unintended shocks such as an extreme weather event. 

These interventions are not designed as experiments: there is no hypothesis, no rigorous monitoring, no ‘control’ or baseline in which an experiment is conducted for the purposes of comparison. Therefore no conclusions can be drawn. Furthermore, the impacts of an intervention are rarely limited to that sector: the temporary traffic control scheme will not only alter the flow of traffic but also the flow of people, vehicles and goods and so impact on the local environment. An extreme weather can create temporary impacts on local services as well as long-term impacts on infrastructure, trees and buildings. If we were able to apply more experimental rigour to the way we design interventions or capitalise on serendipitous events, there is much we could learn: how to design traffic flow in cities to improve air quality without negatively impacting the economy; how to design waste collection services to improve reuse and recycling that residents will use; how to improve the resilience of citizens and businesses to the impacts of extreme weather events.

What are the challenges?

However, using a city as a laboratory is not without its challenges. Who has the legitimacy to develop the hypothesis? Who could be responsible for dreaming up the priority questions and who is interested in the results? Local authorities may be interested, but are not set up to pose cross-departmental questions – Highways is separate from Planning, which is separate from Environment. And who would be in a position to respond to the results? Not to mention that Local Authorities are short of funding and have to manage many conflicting priorities. Citizens may be interested in the results, but who is responsible for representing the collective and decide on priorities, particularly for all social groups? Businesses may be interested, but what is the financial incentive, especially when they would need to act for the many and not just their own interests?

Then there is the question of who conducts the experiment. Even if a hypothesis could be developed, who can ‘design’ an intervention to produce the required answers? If a physical intervention is required, how would Planning rules enable these? Who would make the investment if they do not directly benefit over a reasonable time frame?

Experimental design rules are also difficult to apply as it is impossible to create controlled conditions; there is no identical city somewhere that is not simultaneously undergoing ‘no intervention’ so a comparison can be made. In the case of serendipitous experiments such as extreme events, how do we separate out background noise – changes that occur in certain variables as a result of other drivers, for example a couple of hotter than average summers from a general warming trend.

If all of the above can be put into place, next comes the question: who owns the data? Who has the capability to store vast amounts of data securely and make it accessible to those who wish to use it in a way that enables the rights of citizens to remain anonymous? These issues are already coming to the fore, in cities such as Toronto, where private companies are creating new ‘smart districts’ and citizen groups are disputing the privatisation of their data.

And finally on this list of seemingly never-ending questions, how can the results lead to change? How can the learning gained from the results of experiments be used to enable changes to be made, whether that’s changes to policy, the built environment, or even in citizen behaviour?

How can urban observatories help?

There is a multitude of areas of expertise within universities, including those who can design experiments from science, social science and engineering communities, those who establish long-term monitoring programmes from the social, medical and physical sciences and those who deal with data, its gathering, storage, security and analysis. There are also those who deal with more human systems including planners, ethnographers and economists. Universities draw in expertise from across the globe and bring together new ways of thinking and approaching problems. Coupled with the partnerships created with business, industry, government and communities, there are no other organisations where such a diversity of knowledge and skills are focused.

Cities are in a constant state of flux and change. Social systems such as school holidays impact travel patterns, weather causes people to change behaviour and take the bus instead of walk, or drive rather than take the tram. Making measurements over the long term can help generate a baseline from which changes can be recognised, separating the background noise from real effect. The best way of doing this is to have lots of data and collect that data for a long time, so that seasonal, social and other periodic fluctuations can be accounted for more successfully. In addition, having monitoring permanently in place can capture data from unintentional ‘experiments’ that can then be used in research.

The combination of technical expertise and impartiality enables the observatories to act as trusted curators of data who can also make it accessible to all. This applies equally to data coming from their own monitoring devices, as well as data generated by the local authority and other third parties who may lack the resource and expertise to do this task effectively. Local authorities already collect data on traffic and air quality, the Met Office collects data on weather and climate, the Environment Agency collects data on urban rivers, and shops collect footfall information about the numbers of customers crossing their threshold. When combined, the data becomes much more valuable and creates a digital representation of the dynamics of a city.

Combining these data sets also creates a wider community of interest for the Observatories, individuals and organisations who have a vested interest in the future success and who can learn from the results. The sense-my-street project in Newcastle has empowered citizens to gather their own scientific air quality data in their local neighbourhood. The project has lent out scientific grade sensors, tutored citizens on taking readings and helped them understand the results through visualisations. This process has enabled them to feel confident that changes made by themselves make a real difference and has provided them with the confidence to lobby for wider change, armed with robust data.

How can this help tackle big city challenges?

The theme of air quality provides a topical example of how Observatories can help address a key challenge for cities and their citizens. The long-term measurements taken are designed to more clearly recognise the sources of poor air quality – is it personal vehicular use, freight transport or industry? Assuming traffic is a significant problem, where is the best place to close roads (and to which vehicles) to have the greatest impact on the most vulnerable communities? How do you make sure that the closure of one road does not just shift the problem to another location? Changes such as congestion charging are likely to have significant impact on many of our cities. Capturing these changes over the short, medium and long term can provide an evidence base that allows us to evaluate the impact of our decisions, not just in fixing the original problem but the impacts that ripple out across social and behaviour change, economics, traffic and pedestrian movements. Working at local, neighbourhood and city scale observatories enable us to capture these impacts well away from the source of the intervention.

The sense-my-street project has demonstrated how data can engage and empower citizens, but making data open to all has the potential to empower many more. Data visualised in the right way can enable conversations with diverse communities and feed back into future experiments to address their concerns. For example, when a city centre street is next closed, we could use the opportunity to find a way of measuring the impact on local businesses to quantify the impact on trade.

There are many “wicked” problems that UK and global cities face where evidence based decision making and the ability to understand the value and impact of policy and intervention will be critical in prioritising and assessing the inevitable trade-offs. Whether we are tackling poor air quality, regenerating our commercial centres or electrifying our transport systems, we should be wary of thinking about solutions that treat each of these as isolated problems. 

In 1665 Robert Hooke said: “The truth is, the Science of Nature has been already too long made only a work of the Brain and the Fancy: It is now high time that it should return to the plainness and soundness of Observations on material and obvious things.” Using this same principle he also tried to “explain a System of the World” from observations made of the motion of the Earth in 1674, almost a century before the first industrial revolution. In 2019, as we undergo the so-called 4th industrial revolution and digital systems replace or control industrial processes, we look towards digital systems to do the same for our increasingly crowded and complex city systems. It is within this context, that Observatories – the collecting and curation of data independently over long time-scales and across all aspects of city life – aim to enable far more than just control. They are about enabling all of us to think about changing the way we plan, adapt and evolve in an uncertain future.

Photo credit: reynermedia via Flickr